Ha'tikvah

Voices from the field

A Humble Hero

"Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe"
(Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)

Throughout the Holocaust, in a world of moral collapse, there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. In many cases, they never planned to become rescuers, and were unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. They were non-Jews, and many were honored as Righteous Among the Nations.

Then there was Nicholas Winton: an ordinary person with extraordinary humanity. He was a Jew helping Jews, and the world only found out about his efforts over 50 years later, in 1988.

Sir Nicholas Winton

In December 1938, Nicholas Winton, a 29-year-old London stockbroker, was about to leave for a skiing holiday in Switzerland, when he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake asking him to cancel his holiday and immediately come to Prague: "I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don't bother bringing your skis." When Winton arrived, he was asked to help in the camps, in which thousands of refugees were living in appalling conditions. In his own words:

The news of Kristallnacht, the bloody pogrom (violent attack) against German and Austrian Jews on the nights of November 9 and 10, 1938, had reached Prague. Winton decided to take steps:

I found out that the children of refugees and other groups of people who were enemies of Hitler weren't being looked after. I decided to try to get permits to Britain for them. I found out that the conditions which were laid down for bringing in a child were chiefly that you had a family that was willing and able to look after the child, and £50, which was quite a large sum of money in those days, that was to be deposited at the Home Office. The situation was heartbreaking. Many of the refugees hadn't the price of a meal. Some of the mothers tried desperately to get money to buy food for themselves and their children. The parents desperately wanted at least to get their children to safety when they couldn't manage to get visas for the whole family. I began to realize what suffering there is when armies start to march.

In terms of his mission, Winton was not thinking in small numbers, but of thousands of children. He was ready to start a mass evacuation:

Everybody in Prague said, 'Look, there is no organization in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go.' And I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable.

Independently of Operation Kindertransport, Nicholas Winton set up his own rescue operation. At first, Winton's office was a dining room table at his hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Anxious parents, who gradually came to understand the danger they and their children were in, came to Winton and placed the future of their children into his hands. Winton contacted the governments of nations he thought could take in the children. Only Sweden and his own government said yes. Great Britain promised to accept children under the age of 18 as long as he found homes and guarantors who could deposit £50 for each child to pay for their return home.

Because he wanted to save the lives of as many of the endangered children as possible, Winton returned to London and planned the transport of children to Great Britain. He worked at his regular job on the Stock Exchange by day, and then devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts, often working far into the night. He made up an organization, calling it "The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Section." The committee consisted of himself, his mother, his secretary and a few volunteers.

Winton had to find funds to use for repatriation costs, and a foster home for each child. He also had to raise money to pay for the transports when the children's parents could not cover the costs. He advertised in British newspapers, and in churches and synagogues. He printed groups of children's photographs all over Britain. He felt certain that seeing the children's photos would convince potential sponsors and foster families to offer assistance. Finding sponsors was only one of the endless problems in obtaining the necessary documents from German and British authorities.

Officials at the Home Office worked very slowly with the entry visas. We went to them urgently asking for permits, only to be told languidly, 'Why rush, old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe.' This was a few months before the war broke out. So we forged the Home Office entry permits.

On March 14, 1939, the first transport of children left Prague for Britain by airplane.

On September 1, 1939 the biggest transport of children was to take place, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed. This put an end to Winton's rescue efforts. Winton has said many times that the vision that haunts him most to this day is the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague for that last aborted transport.

Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.

The significance of Winton's mission is verified by the fate of that last trainload of children. Moreover, most of the parents and siblings of the children Winton saved perished in the Holocaust.

After the War

After the war, Nicholas Winton didn't tell anyone, not even his wife Grete about his wartime rescue efforts. In 1988, a half century later, Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 in their attic, with all the children's photos, a complete list of names, a few letters from parents of the children to Winton and other documents. She finally learned the whole story. Today the scrapbooks and other papers are held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Israel.

The rescued children, many now grandparents, still refer to themselves as "Winton's children." 

With excerpts from The Power of Good